Advocating for Video Games in Your Library
Whether you’re a library user, board member, or staff member, you may find yourself in the position of pitching or defending video games for your library. There are many ways to go about incorporating video games at your library, which may include free-play arcade cabinets, consoles in dedicated playing areas, computer gaming stations, video game programming, borrowable consoles, borrowable games, and more. This guide is meant to offer some overarching ideas and justifications that would apply to any and all of these uses of video games. For details on handling the actual logistics of starting a video game collection, check out Megan’s post about rolling out Burlingame Public Library’s first video game collection!
Video games are often misunderstood and even today there are some who feel they have no place in a library. As a B.Ed graduate, MLIS student, and lifelong gamer, I strongly disagree! Here are some reasons why video games do have a place in public libraries today.
To begin with perhaps the simplest reason, many libraries are places of entertainment as well as learning. All work and no play makes for a dull community! Just as lots of books have a high entertainment factor, at my own public library patrons also enjoy access to DVDs, BluRays, streaming, and video games. These and other media collections are enriching the lives of our patrons who enjoy them, and bringing in new loyal patrons who may not have otherwise considered visiting a library.
Games are a favorite form of entertainment for many of our patrons, with titles suitable for competitive play, parties, online gaming, hangouts, family time, or solo play. The importance of entertainment and leisure is evident when looking at the high circulation statistics of these kinds of materials in libraries that have them on offer.
Education is of course vital as well, but video games are not the bane of education. Far from it! They can be utilized as education aides.
Even if you believe that libraries should prioritize the educational aspect, games have that covered too. These days there are an abundance of learning games available across various consoles, apps, and online. A recent overtly educational game that comes to mind would be Big Brain Academy: Brain vs Brain for Nintendo Switch.
However, how someone learns through video games is not so much dependent on which game they play as much as how they engage with it. Games that are not specifically designed with education in mind can also be a goldmine for learning and one more tool in the toolkit of building literacy.
There are games out there created specifically for learning to read, and also “visual novel” games that are essentially gamified choose-your-own-adventure books, but I am talking in a broader sense here. Many games involve reading and sequencing in a natural way through dialogue and plotting. Skyrim, as an example, has real books scattered throughout that the player can collect in installments and read to learn more about the immersive fantasy world in which they inhabit. Some games are more dialogue and text-heavy than others, but regardless, any amount of reading is a win!
As another example, recently I watched in fascination as a 6 year old learned some new vocabulary while playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Her interest in the story pushed her to sound out the tricky words of written dialogue, and her father was there to help when she stumbled on something she didn’t understand. Another day they used the same game to practice math when she took out a notebook to track which amounts of various ingredients she’d need to upgrade her armor at a Fairy Fountain. Since several pieces of armor required the same types of ingredients, and she already had some quantities of those ingredients on hand, she worked naturally on addition and subtraction to figure out what was left to find in the game.
Non-gamers would surely be surprised at the thoughtfulness and depth that goes into many video games, as well as the diverse and ever-expanding variety of game types and themes available today.
Those who do not play video games, or who play only a limited genre of games, are only experiencing a tiny fraction of what is now available. Video games are a format, not a genre, and game creators amaze players every year with their inventive, inspired creations.
A small sampling of what’s available today includes rhythm games, visual novels, puzzle games, party games, walking sims, first person shooters, role playing games, sidescrollers, horror, simulators, fighting, educational, action, strategy, racing, fitness, artistic, platformer, sports, fashion, virtual reality, and many more.
To delve slightly deeper into some specific innovative titles that might surprise the uninitiated, games like the wildly popular Minecraft are getting even the youngest players busy building their own worlds and architectural structures. Budding artists will enjoy games like Colours Live, a “portable art studio” which includes a pressure-sensing pen used on the touchscreen. Rocksmith+ is used in conjunction with guitars to help players learn how to play real music. Dance Central is a VR game that offers a virtual dance floor for players to practice choreographed dance routines and participate in dance battles with other players. These are only a few examples that give a peek into the innovation of games today.
While library staff, patrons, and trustees endlessly advocate for public libraries, there is unfortunately still so much lingering misconception about what we offer these days. Many of the general public still think of us as quiet book warehouses where one goes to study and get “shhhh”d by cranky librarians. Curating video game collections is just one way that libraries are proving this isn’t the case.
When I do tours of the library with kids, there are often at least a few who seem a bit disinterested in the library as a whole, but they certainly perk up when I mention video games. Adults, too, are often surprised and delighted that they can borrow popular games from us, whether for themselves or their kids, allowing them to try games they might otherwise not have had a chance to play due to their high cost.
Video games can occasionally be a linear one-shot story, but they often offer a lot of replay-ability. Patrons can try a game from the library’s collection before they decide to go ahead and buy their own copy. Video games are expensive, with the cost for a game seeming to rise with each new console release. With brand new copies nearing the $80 mark for most systems, we can help patrons make an informed choice about how they want to spend their video game cash.
Video games can offer social interaction, especially in isolated times like the recent pandemic. When discussing online interactions, one might think of the often notoriously juvenile audio chats in first-person-shooter games. However, besides the fact that games like Call of Duty DO foster friendships and facilitate positive social interactions too, many other games also offer different kinds of social interaction. A perfect example of this connection aspect would be a project I worked on during the early days of the pandemic.
When Covid-19 was first becoming a rapid concern that we weren’t prepared for, many libraries made the difficult decision to close or alter their operations temporarily for safety reasons, including my own public library. It was a time when many, staff and patrons alike, were feeling scared and isolated. Library staff around the world began brainstorming inventive ways to bring people together without *actually* bringing people together physically.
This anxious and confusing time happened to coincide with the release of the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, of which I was a player. I pitched the idea to my library’s management to build a library Island in-game that our patrons could visit. Happily, they said to go for it! The creation and running of our Animal Crossing Library Island ended up being very rewarding and enriching for myself and many patrons who visited. I created a Discord server and enlisted the help of some other like-minded librarians from around the world who helped me get some key items to prepare for the arrival of our in-game visitors. Patrons visited our island with their characters and enjoyed taking photos together in scenic areas, item swaps, text chatting, and exploring a 7-room customized library with a teen zone, makerspace, and more.
The Animal Crossing Library Island project brought patrons together in a fun and colourful online gaming environment during a time when real life was feeling tense and anxious. It offered a novel way to experience some of the social connection and interaction that many were craving.
Social interaction with games is not limited to online play, either. Local gaming (with people in the same immediate vicinity) is a great way to spend time with friends and family, and is something that many people are craving due to the social restrictions of the recent pandemic. Libraries utilize both online and local play to host innovative programs and revitalize library spaces.
The addition of in-house video games can provide opportunities to totally update and revolutionize library spaces and programming. With games available for all ages and interests, it’s sure to be a good investment, and an excellent way to bring in teens (which can sometimes be a tough demographic to reel in).
A couple of months ago I took a trip to the Stanley A. Milner branch of Edmonton Public Library for a library observation report assignment. I was extremely impressed with their technology and game offerings, which included things like a massive double-sided interactive touchscreen wall with rotating themes and games, arcade cabinets scattered throughout the floors, a dedicated Gamerspace with consoles and PCs, and a children’s gaming area. Each of these were clearly popular and loved by patrons young and old.
While large-scale gaming additions and rooms are certainly a renovation wish-list item for many libraries, game spaces and programming can definitely be done on a smaller scale and budget. Libraries can use existing technologies and spaces to host gamers, or even invite gamers to bring their own handheld systems or phones to play co-op games. There are many different ways to bring gaming into the library, and more ways will surely become available as gaming continues to evolve.
One often touted benefit of reading books is their capacity to foster the growth of empathy in readers. Within the world of video games, too, there are so many different kinds of stories to discover and open the minds and hearts of players.
I cannot say enough that video games are a format, not a genre. They are a vessel for telling stories of all kinds. While I’ve been a gamer since a very young age, it’s only more recently that I truly began to understand just how diverse games are, and their never-ending potential. I’d even go so far as to say that the characters we embody in games can truly impact how we see ourselves in positive ways.
In the last few years I’ve experienced some games that made me reflect on the potential power of the format. The Last Guardian explores the deep bond between a young boy and a mysterious guardian creature, conveying their growing friendship and trust. The Life is Strange series deals with complex and sensitive themes like identity, complicated relationships, bullying, racism, death and grieving. Game developers are also using virtual reality to focus on themes with social impacts such as The Key, which aims to open its players eyes to the harsh realities of refugees forced to flee their homes in search of sanctuary.
As long as there are humans on planet earth, there will be our stories. We will always be compelled to tell stories, and our methods of doing so will continue to shift and expand alongside us. Video games are a compelling medium for entertainment, learning, and sharing stories, and definitely have a place in our libraries.